Connecting to the future

Private-public partnerships touted as broadband grants are delivered

Gov. Scott Walker, right, chats with Brazeau Town Chairman Ryan Wendt and Riverview Town Chairman Ann Hogan at a celebration Monday of new state grants to improve high-speed internet access in northern Oconto County. (Times Herald photo by Warren Bluhm)

With a $600,000 state grant in hand, Bertram Communications hopes to make significant progress toward improving internet access to northern Oconto County by the end of the year.

Likewise, Nsight Telservices will soon begin laying a fiber optic network that brings high-speed broadband to the Oconto Falls Industrial Park, leveraging a $49,230 grant to complete the project.

The grants — part of the latest $7.6 million broadband allocation by the state Public Service Commission — were celebrated Monday in Oconto Falls at a gathering of state and local officials, including Gov. Scott Walker.

Bertram plans to construct five towers and lease space on two existing towers to boost internet speeds by five to 10 times current rates for nearly 4,000 customers in the northern part of the county.

Mark Dodge, the company’s director of business development, said being able to connect is a quality of life issue for businesses, families and tourists alike.

“Home-based businesses that are here or would like to be here and can’t because they can’t get the access, schoolchildren trying to get their work done and their parents trying to help them get their work done — it’s a really big deal up here,” Dodge said. “The Public Service Commission grant program is allowing small companies like us to be able to afford to bring very new and very high technology into rural Wisconsin. And without that, it literally wouldn’t be possible.”

The state was influenced by local government and business support, as well. Investments totaling almost $20,000 came from Oconto County, the Oconto County Economic Development Corp., Oconto Electric Cooperative, an anonymous donor and the towns and residents of Brazeau, Breed, Doty, Lakewood, Mountain and Riverview.

Michael O’Malley, director of internal controls and operations for Nsight, said public-private partnerships are also key to the Oconto Falls project.

“We worked with Oconto County right from the get-go,” he said. The city of Oconto Falls, the county and OCEDC invested a total of $4,500. “We really appreciate this, and we’re very, very excited to get this project started.”

Paul Ehrfurth, executive director of OCEDC who shepherded the grant application through channels, singled out Riverview Town Chairman Ann Hogan for her tenacity in galvanizing local support.

PSC Chairperson Lon Roberts said those kind of public-private partnerships played a role in Bertram receiving the largest single grant in this cycle.

“We think that’s the kind of program that the state of Wisconsin ought to be associated with,” Roberts said. “There’s a whole variety of constituencies that are going to benefit from this thing — that includes families. It includes business, includes towns and local governments, and it obviously includes the private sector.”

Walker used the occasion to remind people there’s another round of $7 million in grants coming this summer, with an application deadline of July 16.

The governor also emphasized the value of public and private partners stepping up together to support the projects.

He used the analogy of rural electrification, which transformed agriculture in the 20th century, to illustrate the transformative value of bringing high-speed internet access to rural areas.

“That’s really the key and the joy of this program,” Walker said. “We’re not running this permanently. We’re not subsidizing the cost. What we’re doing is reducing the cost of the infrastructure in the first place to make it viable for telecommunication companies to come in and put that fiber network needed to connect every home, every farm, every business, every attraction in the state of Wisconsin.”

He mentioned his two sons — now 24 and 23, who moved away for jobs before coming back to settle in Wisconsin — as another incentive to create such a network.

“To me, what we’re investing in today isn’t a fiber network. It isn’t even about economic development or anything else. Those are all true,” Walker said. The network programs are “an investment to make sure our children, when they graduate, have one more compelling reason to stay close to home.”